Although Fred grumbled about Mr. Varga and his make-work projects, he was glad to be kept on as clerk at the Super 88 hotel during the pandemic. Hotels around the city were mainly closed, with no tourists and few business travellers. But the hotel was nearest to Saint Casilda’s Hospital, so an entire wing was dedicated to health care workers who did not want to risk infecting their families, or who had such a long commute they couldn’t work double shifts otherwise.
Fred, who was normally “kept hopping” (Mr. Varga’s words) at the front desk, now had time to take care of things no one else had got around to: cleaning the aquarium, repainting the message cubbyholes, and removing the key hooks, since Super 88 had converted to a modern card-entry system. And then there was the box of Lost & Found.
Cellphones and suitcases were normally returned within twenty-four hours, but long-term items required more thought. The toy found in Room 208 on July 6 last year, for example. Fred called the family to tell them they’d left behind a stuffed toy dolphin, and they said no, it was already there, and the July 5 family confirmed but asked could Fred please send it to their new mailing address. Also, Fred reunited a sweater and a pair of black size 14 men’s brogues with two other happy owners. Later, Mr. Berteburger, who’d left behind the three-volume “Teach Yourself Russian” said not to bother; he’d “given up on that minx.” Or maybe he’d “given up on travel to Minsk”; either way, Mr. Berteburger wouldn’t be needing it. Then Vanessa Redgrave, who had stayed in Room 306, and left behind a shopping bag of silk undies, rudely told Fred not to bother her again. He wondered: “again?”
The last item in Lost & Found was a red suitcase. As a long-time hotel clerk, Fred had developed a connoisseur’s eye for luggage, and this was a beauty. It was small and rectangular, like a shoebox with a carry-handle on top. On each of its eight corners, a molded dark red “bumper cap” protected the case from dings and dents. He admired the perfectly proportioned brass fittings: hinges and fasteners that still worked perfectly. It opened and shut like a tool kit, the deluxe kind with the tray that popped up when you opened it. He surmised it was part of a matching set of hard-sided suitcases, covered with a textured linen-look laminate, from back in the day when people dressed up fancy to travel. Fred, who was a man of gently stooped shoulders, thinning hair and thickening middle, grew curious to see the owner.
He looked up the number of the guest who had stayed in Room 212, LaToya Montel, and saw two messages had already been left in winter to claim her suitcase. He left a third. A woman called back within the day and in a slow, sad voice said she would pick it up “early next week.”
Mr. Varga dropped by the front desk. “Mmm, what have we got here?” he said, running his fingers over the brass fittings. “Oh my, Pinky would love this.”
“Pick up by owner next week,” Fred said firmly. He was indifferent to most children, but instinctively disliked the boss’s spoiled granddaughter, who constantly “borrowed” his whiteboard markers and left the caps off. Fred moved to put the red case back in the cupboard, but Mr. Varga stopped him and opened the case. “Lotsa lil compartments,” he said, sticking his fat fingers in the satiny pop-up tray. “There’s even a lil mirror here,” he said. “Just like Mother’s jewelry box. You let me know if it’s unclaimed.”
Fred had a jolt of recognition. His sister had had such a jewelry box, with tray and mirror and a wind-up music box. When she opened it, a little dancer twirled as the melody played. He wondered how Nora was doing, poor girl. She was in a tight situation as a grocery cashier – deemed essential, so her job was secure, but her diabetes meant the virus was much more dangerous. He rang her up that very evening.
“I’m doing okay, I guess.” She was relieved the grocery had installed hand-sanitizer stations and erected a Plexiglas barrier at each cash register. In her spare time, she was sewing masks. Other than work and TV, she and Fred both lived quiet, uneventful, singleton lives in separate cities. “I’ve stitched you a reusable facemask,” Nora said. “Wash it every day with soap and water by hand, let it dry overnight. Just like your red Speedo.”
He chuckled. He had been swim captain in high school and every night he’d washed his own suit by hand. Funny how sisters remembered things like that. “Sure, send it along,” he said.
The mask arrived by post a week later. Green camouflage print. He had another good laugh over that. She knew his passion for birdwatching, so had evidently chosen a print to blend in with the trees and the bushes. Although, strictly speaking, who needed a mask in the great outdoors? Still, he was touched. “I can’t wait to try it out,” he texted her.
The week was over, but the red suitcase remained. He called LaToya’s number and the same slow, sad voice answered as before. “My car broke down. I’ll be there next week.”
“We can send it by post – wouldn’t that be easier?” The news was full of stories lately about people who had lost their jobs. “No charge to you,” Fred hastened to add. Super 88 had a sizable postage expense fund.
“You said it’s a suitcase. That seems ridiculous to mail.”
“It’s tiny, actually. No bigger’n a shoebox,” Fred said. How strange that she didn’t remember a unique item like this. “Hang on, is this LaToya Montel?”
“I will come on Monday around noon to pick it up,” the woman said and hung up.
Fred got out the little case and looked it over more carefully. The “MONTEL” printed on the tag agreed with the name in the hotel registry. There were two holes drilled in the case, one on each side, barely noticeable. It was empty, except for a longish wooden dowel that rolled around in the bottom. A few whitish marks marred the red satin lining. They were powdery and could be rubbed away and made him think of cosmetics. But why didn’t LaToya remember her case? Checking the hotel records, he saw she’d stayed there around Christmas time. Maybe the case was a gift. Or a hand-me-down. One among many holiday things, he figured, and thus, easily forgotten.
“Yiiii!” shrieked Pinky as she raced into the lobby.
Feeling proud of his deductive powers – and a little protective – Fred shut the case quickly and put it in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.
“Hey Fred, whyn’t I take over for an hour so you can go grab a sandwich,” Mr. Varga said.
“Oh, thanks,” Fred said, smiling. He picked up his camo jacket, new mask from Nora, and binoculars.
“Could you pick up some milk on your way?” Varga said. “Just a small carton. Enough for someone’s Froot Loops?”
Fred sighed. The line-up at the grocery store would be long and they were likely selling bulk sizes only – he’d have to get a gallon jug. Even when giving time off, Varga did not truly give “time off.”
“Okaaaay,” Fred said, but decided to go first to the nearby nature preserve. He ate his cheese sandwich on the way, to maximize his birdwatching time. He wanted to see the scarlet tanager, which was currently migrating through this area. The birds preferred the crowns of trees, flashing through them like small bursts of flame. Only the males turned a brilliant scarlet, and only in spring. By late summer, they would trade in their gaudy bachelor clothes for a sensible, camouflaged life in olive green.
He did spot one—what a glorious, glorious bird. He returned to the car, feeling spiritually uplifted by nature. Then he saw Mr. Varga had tried his number four times. Fred called back and Varga picked up immediately.
“Where do we keep the mop and bucket?” There was shrieking in the background.
“Mop and bucket?” Fred said, his mind racing. Can of juice? Bottle of soda? Crikey, not the 25-cup Hospitality Urn. “Why?”
“Well, ah… you know the fish tank in the lobby?”
Fred’s blood ran cold. “Get her away from the glass. I’m on my way.” He broke every speed limit as he raced back to Super 88. He swore every word in his cussbook at that stupid kid and her besotted grandpa.
Fred lurched into the hotel, carrying the big blue bucket half-full of water from the outside tap of the building. Water covered the lobby floor. He slid-walked to the cupboard, got out the DeChlor blister pack, and popped one tablet into the bucket.
The scene of carnage sickened him. Small brightly colored fish – some gasping, some weakly twitching – lay in a mishmash of tinted pebbles, glass fragments, and greenish pulp. No sign of Varga or the grand-Varga. Just as well.
He got on his knees and tried to pick up a fish with a net, then realized it would be faster with his fingers. “Hold on guys, hold on!” he called in a soft voice of encouragement. “Lord have mercy on the great sea creatures and all the depths… Creeping things and flying fowl,” he improvised as he plucked body after limp body from the massacre and dropped them in the (hopefully) resuscitating water of the bucket. Plants and snails, he dropped into a separate tub.
The fish looked no more animated than small snippets of colored cloth. Just one wiggle. Please. He suddenly noticed two black patent-leather shoes standing six feet from him.
“Hello?” said a sort-of familiar voice.
His eyes snapped upward. The woman, tall, dark, formidable, was shaped like a ship’s prow that jutted forward, tapering down to regular hips and long well-clad feet.
“Sorry, we’re only open for essential service employees,” he said. “Long-term rental.” He dropped his eyes to the bucket again. Please. Then back up.
“I was called for a pick-up,” she said. “LaToya Montel’s suitcase?”
He did not reply at first. This woman, who looked fierce and naval, did not square with the girlish handwriting or the jubilant red.
“I came to pick up my sister’s suitcase.” She gave a slow, resolute blink, and jangled her car keys. “Looks like I caught you at a bad time… Fred,” she said, reading his nametag. “We spoke by phone – when you called LaToya’s number,” she said. “My name’s Barbara; here’s my card.”
Fred jumped into awareness. LaToya. The suitcase. He tucked Barbara’s card in his pocket and apologized for thick-headedness. He went to the closet, dug around for a moment, then remembered he’d moved the case out of Pinky’s reach. He lifted it from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and set it on the counter.
“Aw, Drake,” she said, and her lip showed the hint of a smile.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“My sister’s bird. She hand-fed a little bird. Really, really tame. This was its travel case. See the air holes?” She opened it, took the dowel, and slid it through one of the airholes. “Normally she kept the case open in a closed room. Drake used it as a home base. See his perch? And the traces of bird poop?” Her fingers touched the stained satin lining. “Sometimes he’d sit on the perch and peck the handsome bird in the mirror.”
“A budgie? A canary?”
“Nah.” Her face was soft but expressionless. “Just some run-of-the-mill bird – fell out of its nest, you know –”
“Pigeon?” Fred tried not to look judgemental.
“Heavens, no! One of those small ones – they’re everywhere – sparrows.” She waved toward the window. “Typical LaToya. All heart. Even the fallen bird. Most people would have let a cat take it for a snack.”
She stopped abruptly and gave a slow, resolute blink.
Fred saw her eyes were brimming. As a long-time hotel clerk, he was used to dealing with all kinds of waterworks. He discreetly put a box of tissues on the counter and went to gently stir the fish in the rescue water. He peered in the bucket, mooning about what these critters had been through: losing their safe world, gasping for breath, and then the shock of cold, partially dechlorinated water. Imagining the glass bits scraping their delicate skin bothered him most.
He grimaced as he looked at the unholy mess. He got the dustpan and started scooping wet glass and tinted pebbles into the lined trash can. He found he had no heart for it. He heard Barbara blow her nose and take a deep breath. On impulse, he took two Styrofoam cups, half-filled them with coffee from the Hospitality Urn, and gave one to Barbara. It was the type of thing Nora would do, and thinking of her made him feel a little less upset. The magic of sisters.
Barbara looked faintly surprised but took the cup.
He led her to the picnic table outside, where they could sit six feet apart, as per the new pandemic regulations.
They sat in awkward silence. He wondered what had happened to Drake but was afraid to ask. “Your sister will be able to find a new bird,” he said. No response. “I’m a bird nut myself. Watching them, that is. Right now we’re in peak season for scarlet tanager.” He told her, haltingly, about the migratory flux and the striking color change.
Barbara studied the glowing blue sky.
“Oh, you won’t see them in the bare sky,” he clarified. “Hidden in tree-tops, is what they prefer.” Then he shut up, thinking maybe he’d yapped too much about scarlet tanagers. He was used to scrutinizing people without looking directly at them. His peripheral vision took in details of Barbara’s hair, which had been elaborately styled and woven but now had two months’ soft growth from the roots. He touched his own hair, which was shaggy and uneven. Hairdressers were greatly missed in these pandemic times.
“Are they all lost?” she said.
“What, the birds?” he said.
“Your fish.” She pointed with her chin toward the bucket.
Now it was Fred’s turn to sigh. “Just as well,” he said, putting a tough edge on his voice. “I wouldn’t have a tank to put them in, anyway.” He shrugged. He should be happy with another duty cancelled: tank cleaning.
“Hm, an old goldfish bowl…” Barbara whispered, practically inaudibly, across six feet of space. She shook herself and resumed a normal voice. “I’m curious – how’d the tank break?”
“Act of God,” Fred said. He sipped his coffee.
“Most people wouldn’t try to rescue them,” she said.
“Yiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Pinky came careening past them, her arms churning, her eyes bright.
Barbara gave an involuntary laugh. “Looks like the Act of God has returned. I should let you go.” She gulped down the coffee and thanked him.
“Her grandpa’s keeping an eye on her,” Fred said, as Mr. Varga trotted past, helplessly swinging his arms. Fred gulped down his coffee, too, and found that speed of consumption improved its flavor. “Alrighty, I should get back to work.” He stood up. “But remember to pass along my birdwatching tip to LaToya, you hear? Watch for tanagers in tree-tops – now’s the best time to see them.”
A look flickered over Barbara’s face. She followed him inside and put her hands on the little red suitcase on the counter like it was someone she knew. She picked it up. LaToya would never rescue a fledgling or a stray ever again, but memory of her kindness would shine on. Barbara felt like telling this to the clerk. She didn’t want her sister to be only a statistic, one among many. But she felt a rawness in her that was too close to the surface, too likely to rip forth and make a scene. Barbara had her dignity. Sometimes dignity was all she had.
Fred collected their cups and put them in the trash. He glanced in the blue bucket as he walked past, and something made him stop. A smile broke out on his face. “Well, well,” he said, and waved her over.
One small translucent fish, not much bigger than a tadpole, flicked about. “All that trouble for a guppy,” he said.
“So be it,” she said. “So be it.”
Short fiction by V.J. Hamilton has been published in The Antigonish Review, The First Line, and The MacGuffin, among others. She won the EVENT Speculative Fiction prize. She lives and works at a desk job in Toronto and writing fiction keeps her sane. Sort of.